Cell phones: You love their convenience and that you can make calls in roadside emergencies, but not their constant interruptions-or the danger to drivers. And there are dangers. It's difficult to tell how many accidents involve drivers distracted by cell phones, because states are only now beginning to keep track. However, a 1997 study by Donald Redelmeier and Robert Tibshirani, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported that the risk of a collision increases fourfold if a driver is using a cell phone. That's about the same risk as for drunk driving. And according to the study, hands-free cell phones don't seem to help much because, in the majority of cases, it's the conversation itself that seems to distract the driver, not the process of dialing. Another major factor is responding to an incoming call, responsible for 42 percent of cell-phone-related car crashes, according to a 1996 study by the Japanese National Police Academy.
The risk of accidents has prompted Australia, England, Germany, Japan and nine other nations to ban the use of handheld cell phones by drivers. In the United States, a handful of communities have instituted such bans, and numerous cities and states are considering them. Proposed legislation in this area is meeting stiff resistance, however, from the cellular communications industry, which contends that using a cell phone while driving is no more distracting than eating a hamburger, tuning the radio or tending a child. Cell-phone users are likewise resistant to giving up the convenience. Although a 1997 study by the Insurance Research Council found that 84 percent of cell-phone users believe using a phone while driving is a distraction and will increase the likelihood of a car accident, 61 percent of those same phone users say they still use their phones at least sometimes while driving, and 30 percent say they phone and drive frequently.
Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer Jane Easter Bahls specializes in business and legal topics.